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Archive Watch: Good Samaritans

The Samaritans of biblical fame still exist, although their numbers are small: The current community, split between Holon, Israel, and Mount Gerizim in the West Bank, numbers just over 700 people. In 1901, a Michigan industrialist named E.K. Warren traveled to the Middle East and was asked to bring home a collection of sacred Samaritan objects for safekeeping. The objects include prayer books and centuries-old versions of the Samaritan Pentateuch, or Torah, which has some significant differences from the Jewish Pentateuch. The collection has been housed ever since at Michigan State University.

In 2007, as a graduate student at Michigan State, James Ridolfo came across an electronic index to the collection. He got in touch with a Samaritan elder, Binyamin Tsedaka, who had been asking Michigan State to “promote Samaritan studies.”  Working with William Hart-Davidson, co-director of the university’s Writing in Digital Environments (WIDE) Research Center, Mr. Ridolfo set out to design an “Archive 2.0″ project with input from the so-called cultural stakeholders, the Samaritans.

The Samaritan Archive 2.0 Project recently received a start-up grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Office of Digital Humanities, and Mr. Ridolfo and Mr. Hart-Davidson have written a white paper describing the archive’s evolution and the Archive 2.0 approach. The Chronicle asked them to talk about how they used Archive 2.0 principles to design the Samaritan archive. They answered together by e-mail. Individual responses are noted.

Q. How does an Archive 2.0 project differ from a traditional, preservation-oriented archive?

A. We chose the “Archive 2.0″ title in part to invoke those aspects of Web 2.0 that might prove to be useful and transformative to a digital archive: user-contributed content, shared standards for metadata to enable content sharing and transformation, etc. But we also wanted to suggest that [new technologies] represent an opportunity to rethink what an archive is and what it tries to achieve. …  Preservation is one key mission, obviously. But providing access is equally important. In Archive 1.0, these two missions are often in direct conflict with one another. But in a digital archive, preservation and access might not be seen as directly opposing forces.

Soon after we used the term in the title of our project, we found other instances that had begun to emerge in the scholarly literature. The blog ArchivesNext has been a great source for us in tracking discussion of where archives may be headed within the field of archival studies and library science.

Q. You did extensive field work — interviews and beta testing, a visit to Holon and Mount Gerizim — as part of designing the project. How did that alter your thinking?

A. The feedback we received from these sessions proved invaluable. … For example, as developers we were very interested in spending a lot of our time incorporating the Samaritan script into the site design, but we found out from community members that we should focus on other tasks instead. We also learned that community members wanted us to work on incorporating the weekly Torah portion schedule into the archive, and we designed a navigation structure to highlight these points of interest.

The design concepts we garnered from our interactions with both cultural and scholarly stakeholders were very much the aim of our project. What we brought to the process of designing digital archives, in fact, was experience in user-centered methods for determining system requirements and building and refining prototypes. Applying these methods to forms of cultural work as well as to scholarly work, and seeking to balance the needs of two distinct groups of stakeholders were among the challenges that drew us, intellectually speaking, to this project.

Q. Are there ways in which cultural and scholarly uses of an archive are incompatible?

A. The potential benefits for engaging with cultural stakeholders are enormous. For example, without field research we could not have included metadata such as the Samaritan Hebrew names for their weekly Torah portions, let alone the proper English transliteration of these names. We also had conversations with the Samaritan high priest, Elazar ben Tsedaka ben Yitzhaq, about the cultural significance of the digitization effort for the community. We also received extensive feedback in our usability studies on various mock-interface designs.

Mr. Ridolfo: We think that there are ways for Archive 2.0 to represent a range of stakeholder interests. For example, our colleague Mike McLeod came up with the brilliant idea that a digital archive with a common metadata structure can have a multiplicity of interfaces tailored to the needs of each individual stakeholder group. While traditional brick-and-mortar archives have only one main entrance, Archive 2.0 has no such building constraint. In this model, we are designing the Samaritan archive with a scholarly stakeholder interface and a cultural-stakeholder interface, as well as an interface for the general public. We are excited to see what happens when members of these groups can not only access the collection in ways that suit their needs but also interact with members of the other groups to explore features that might otherwise be hidden to them.

Q. What could other Archive 2.0 projects learn from this one?

Mr. Hart-Davidson: We hope that our article will help folks reconsider archival practices and see the potential for collaboration, particularly with regard to Archive 2.0 fieldwork. When an archive becomes a digital resource, it not only means that users can access it from all over the world. It also means that an archive transforms to become a place where interaction among stakeholder groups can take place. In many respects, this is quite different from a traditional archive, which is often characterized by tight control over the ways users can interact with artifacts and, perhaps less deliberately, with one another. Hushed conversations and gloved hands are no longer required in digital spaces.

Q. Are traditional brick-and-mortar archives doomed?

A. Not at all. Traditional brick-and-mortar archives are not replaceable. They will continue to serve important functions related to the preservation and restoration of physical artifacts in particular. But we do think archival institutions have an ethical imperative to provide the kind of Archive 2.0 support that we received. … With the tension between preservation and access reduced, archival institutions must reconsider the terms of the trust agreements — tacit or explicit — they have with cultural stakeholders and do what is required to honor these while, at the same time, ensuring that access for scholarly stakeholders is maintained. If they do not, archival institutions run the risk of working increasingly at odds with their most important values: preserving artifacts at the expense of culture, all in the name of preserving culture!

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